Saturday, September 10, 2011

Burn Before Reading

This never happened. It’s just a silly story made up to link together some pedestrian actual events in a way so as to make a story out of it. There was actually a third party involved but, just for fun, I’ll pretend it was me.

In the middle 1970s I was employed at the University of California, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory as an independent nuclear research scientist. I loved my work and I was thinking about accepting an invitation to go abroad for a year, to Germany or maybe France. At the time I had just separated from my wife and was enjoying life as a newly minted middle aged bachelor. I was probably as physically fit as I had ever been in my life. I had just won the Intramural Gymnastics Championship at UC Berkeley, I was doing a lot of long distance running, running a circuit training course and doing some distance swimming almost every day. I went mountain climbing and skiing in the winter and I had just bought one of the first hang gliders. Clearly, I was itching for new challenges.

Just then, the phone rang. It was my brother, who is 5 years younger than me and who was working for the Air Force at Wright-Patterson Airbase in Ohio. About all I knew about his work was that it was highly classified. I think it was concerned with the liaison necessary to help contractors to gain access to secret information that they needed in order to design military defense systems.

His first words were, “What have you done now?” His boss had directed him to one of their conference rooms and told him to cooperate completely with the civilians who were waiting for him there. They never identified themselves but he guessed they were CIA. They wanted to talk about me, and the session lasted a couple of hours. He was told not to reveal any of the content of the meeting, or even that it had taken place. But brothers are brothers.

At the time I didn’t have a clue about what was going on but I was a little worried. Earlier I had been an officer in the Navy and I had had a few interesting assignments. My primary responsibilities had to do with nuclear weapons but I was also involved in communications security and cryptography. I had served as a courier in some situations where I was told that I would be on my own if anything went wrong. The Navy would just disown me. I never had a problem but you never know when things like that can come back to haunt you.

A couple weeks later I received a “form” letter whose stated purpose was to request that I update my contact information for the “Naval Reserve Officers Personnel Department”. The letter went on, in what appeared to be routine “boilerplate”, to remind me that I belonged to the US Navy and could be called on to serve if I was needed. Looked pretty routine. On the other hand, I had not had such a reminder in more than ten years, so a kind of sixth sense started to kick in. I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because it might be nothing, but I started to be a little more aware of my surroundings.

Somebody somewhere was apparently in a big hurry because two or three days later I had some visitors. No suits this time, but these guys were so clean cut it made my skin crawl. There were just two but I could see casual passers by on the street beyond that didn’t ring true. They said they represented the United States Government, presented identification and asked if they could come in. After some preliminary small talk aimed at establishing beyond a doubt that I was who I claimed to be, they got to the point. I was being asked to undertake an unprecedented mission somehow related to national security. They were not authorized to elaborate. A lot of time was spent emphasizing that it would be best if I entered this undertaking of my own free will, but there was an undercurrent in the conversation that suggested that I could be ordered to do it if necessary.
I wasn’t really reluctant since most of my “off the books” activities were interesting when I was on active duty in the Navy. None the less, I was tempted to drag my feet a bit just to see if I could learn more about the project. However, bravado won out over caution and even before they finished their spiel I interrupted with “Sure. No problem. What can I do for you?” At the time I suspected that it had something to do with the upcoming visit of a Russian colleague of mine, V. M.Strutinsky. Maybe they wanted me to plant a bug in his luggage or feed him “misinformation”.

They told me that some training (testing) would be required before the actual nature of the task could be revealed, and that I should put my affairs in order and prepare for about one month’s absence. They clearly had been anticipating my agreement because a lot of machinery was already in place. I was told to expect an invitation to visit a nuclear research center in Germany. I was to fast track it through the laboratory administration where I was working, make all my travel plans and fly to Germany.

When I got to the airport five days later I was met in the waiting area by another agent who asked to see my ticket and passport, which she kept! Then we boarded with the first class passengers. Things were looking up. Well, not exactly. Just before we entered the plane she spoke to one of the flight attendants, and we exited the ramp down the steep stairs that the ground attendants use and she passed me on to what looked like a baggage handler. He motioned me to join him on one of those small tractor like vehicles that are used to move baggage wagons, and off we went.

At this point it became clear that I had completely underestimated the upcoming assignment. I felt a wave of excitement and anticipation pass over me. In later life I came to associate this feeling with the decision to hoist a spinnaker even when there was clearly too much wind. I’d guess that “base jumping” must produce a similar effect.

Maybe this is a good time to backup a bit and look at how we came to this point. Most of what I’m about to recount leaked out during the training or I’ve made educated guesses. It all started when the Soviet Union launched a huge spy satellite with dangerously good photographic resolution capabilities. As often happens in these cases, we couldn’t complain about it without compromising our sources. Any attack on it would be an act of war and unthinkable. It was badly destabilizing and something had to be done. These are not easy decisions but it was finally decided to attempt a “stealth” attack that had a good chance going undetected but that would none the less render the satellite ineffective. Quite a bit was known about the design. For example, it was known that some of the critical components were shielded so that they could withstand micro-meteorite bombardment and even solar proton excursions. It would be difficult to disable. But it had a soft spot in that the security shields were concentrated on the earth facing side. The back of the satellite was undefended, so we could sneak up on it from above.

One of the NASA-DOD contractors had been developing an “anti-satellite”  defence system that utilized new and existing stealth technology and they were eager to give it a try on what looked like an easy target. It consisted of a “A Task Module” that was about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. The engineers called it “the bug”. There was a detachable “Manned Maneuvering Unit” for the pilot, and when it moved away the ATM looked more like a convertible Beetle with the top down.

The MMU was bigger than the maneuverable spacesuit outfits that you see photos of, because it wasn’t tethered and was designed for fairly long range independent activity. It was shaped sort of like a computer mouse. There was space for a pilot and folding arms for performing tasks requiring dexterity. Otherwise it was packed with computer and communications systems and fuel for the thrusters. Both of these components were distinguished by cutting edge stealth technology. The shapes that I have described suggest rounded egg like appearance, but actually they looked more like cut gemstones covered with facets. There was almost no metal used in the construction. They were made of plastic, fiberglass and various composite materials. I was told that they had almost no radar signature. What little return there was would be erratic and blend in with the background noise.

Since the astronaut program in the US was known to be infiltrated it was not going to be possible to assign one of the existing cadre of pilots to this project. Their absence would be noticed. So a search was mounted, using a number of government databases some of which don’t officially exist. They wanted someone from outside the system that had the necessary skills. One search was for a high enough level security clearance. At one point I had had a clearance that didn’t even have a name, so I showed up on that list. Another search was for someone, a PhD Physicist for example, who could understand and employ the flood of information involved in orbital dynamics. I was on that list. Then there was kinesthetic
awareness. Since I had competed in springboard diving, had trained with the Penn State gym team and had metals from tramboline competitions, I was on that list as well. There was another list having roughly to do with psychological factors deemed essential for the task. (I don’t want to go into it.) I was on that list. Finally, there was the fact that I could ordered to go on if I decided to back out.

Not to say that there weren’t many people on these lists. However, only a select few were on all the lists. In the final filtering things like physical and psychological fitness entered as did family considerations. I was really single at the time. And my brother had apparently painted a glowing picture of my abilities, along the lines of “the crazier the better”.

So back to the main thread of the story. We were on a baggage tractor at the airport. It ended up at a rather small unmarked private jet. Four or five hours later we landed at an airbase and taxied into a big hanger before unloading. I didn’t see much daylight for the next week or so. In fact I think that they twisted my time sense around so that I was sleeping during the day and most of the training took place at night. That meant that the normal operating crews at many of the facilities were unaware that the program was in progress.

The training was wonderful. I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I had people around me pushing all the time. Not like in boot camp, but friendly and supportive. I remember once being too tired to lift my arms to eat and someone had to make me something to drink. There was an interesting pattern. At the beginning of an exercise it was all physical but as I started to tire the level of decision making and problem solving went up and up. Finally, at the end, I’d burn out physically and mentally at about the same time.

The training was mostly physical. I already knew a lot of the physics, so the mental training had mostly to do with ATM and satellite familiarization and drills on emergency procedures designed to automate certain responses and reduce reaction times. We spent a lot of time on a specially equipped “vomit comet” and in a huge under water pool that was used to teach weightlessness.

Some of the insiders had misgivings about the brevity of the training, but there was a launch window that wouldn’t wait and a launch vehicle already sitting on the pad at Vandenberg.

Toward the end the training took on a dark feeling since we were practicing for end game strategies that would get the job done even in the event of unforeseen problems that would make it into a one way trip.

The big day arrived in a flash. I had breakfast in Texas (special no bulk no residue) and by the afternoon I was solidly locked in waiting for someone to push the …....5,4,3,2,1 button. No straps or belts, since the MMU was so small the “pilot cavity” had been formed by pouring in foam around a dummy with my dimensions. I didn’t move again for more than 12 hours.

The Russian satellite was in a relatively low polar orbit with an orbital period of about 1.5 hours. Because the earth is spinning along underneath these orbits there are roughly eight separate tracks that lie under the satellite and some of these pass over the US and can not be seen from Russia. It was our plan to insert the ATM above the satellite orbit and then let the satellite catch up. (The higher a satellite the slower is it’s ground speed.) There was a noisy phony satellite inserted at a lower altitude to justify the launch and divert attention.

It worked like a charm. We were basically invisible to Russian surveillance and the distance was slowly closing. I had visual contact at 5 miles, so I separated the MMU and went in for the kill. Pretty dramatic language for what actually happened.

It had been decided, at the last minute, that damage to the satellite would give us away. So my task was to degrade the satellite performance in some subtle way. The solution the “big brains” came up with was a stroke of genius in my opinion. The MMU was equipped with a little spray nozzle on the end of a thin flexible tube that I used to paint a thin film on each of the lenses of the cameras that were aimed down toward the earth. This film consisted of an organic substance that would slowly darken with time. It would be weeks before they noticed any change. The whole job took about 10 minutes so I had time to spare and since the MMU was filming everything I backed off and got some better camera angles. In retrospect, things might have gone quite a bit differently if I had just headed straight back to the ATM.

As I turned away and began accelerating to move the orbit up there was a sudden sharp pain in the middle of my back that felt like someone had pushed a hot needle through me from behind. My first thought, since I had my back to the satellite, was that I had triggered some sort of bobby trap and I was being attacked. I hit the manual override and made a hard burn for home. No sense saving fuel if someone is shooting at you. A sweet female voice was giving me a list of medical options prominent among which were pain killers and coagulating agents. At first I thought I was going to make it but my reflexes were slowing down and the injected adrenaline and other uppers weren’t doing the job. The last thing I remember was the ATM approaching (probably too fast).

Apparently we came together hard but good enough to do the job. In the absence of any commands from me the ATM started the reentry profile. This was not a simple thing since we had to back away from the satellite and wait until we were not visable from Russia to initiate the reentry burn. 

I had not been informed ahead of time about the possibility of ground control helping because it was a delicate business and they didn’t want to have me yelling”Help!” But they were able check orbit parameters and figure out where I was going to come down. The original plan was to come down in the Caribbean where a fleet of US ships was (conveniently) conducting exercises. Because of the rough reentry I came down nearer to Flordia and even though there was a scramble to get under the ATM I ended up spending about half an hour in the water before being picked up by a Coast Guard buoy tender. Since they were not authorized to open the capsule another hour passed before a helicopter showed up to transfer the capsule to an aircraft carrier where there was a welcoming committee.

It was another 10 hours or so until they decided to wake me up. I had been put to sleep by the medical program once it decided that I wasn’t doing anything useful. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything as beautiful as the battleship grey walls of that operating room, but I did feel bad that I had missed all the drama of the reentry prosess.

They were only able to find some tiny cinder like chips in the wound (and some plastic from the MMU shell.) The MMU canopy had a tiny clean hole melted through it, so the missile was probably a micro-meteorite that I just managed to get in the way of. The hole in me was a little bigger because they were hunting around for pieces. Subsequently I have been telling people, even my Dermatologist, that it was a melanoma and that I am lucky to be alive. Part of that is true. Even though the story is something that I just made up.

Monday, August 22, 2011


This is a ripoff of a poem titled “IX”       

by Wendell Berry,
from Leavings. © Counterpoint Press, 2010.                              
(buy now)

From time to time I visit the house where once
I had surrounded it with scaffolding
and began to rebuild it piece by piece
To the casual observer it now looks about as it did before I began

For the house it is time to move on
and for that it must be ripped from my hands and set on another path

And I think of all the effort
I have wasted and all the time,
and of how much joy I took
in that work that is no longer mine
and how much it taught me.
For in the loss I learned something of my place,
something of myself, and now

the scaffolding is gone

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Dinner Party

Summer, 1961. San Diego, CA. (Pt. Loma actually.) I had been accepted to UC-Berkeley, as a candidate for a Ph.D. in Physics, and was spending my first summer making some money working with an electron linear accelerator group at General Atomic in La Jolla. We were making positrons which, as you know, are the holes left behind when you yank electrons out of empty space.

My wife stayed behind in Berkeley and I had been fortunate enough to find a place to stay with a friend in the guest house of a concrete block castle high on a cliff on the western slope of Pt. Loma overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (At no cost If I remember correctly.)

The castle was owned by an eccentric millionaire who had other homes in the area and was traveling most of the time. The castle was kind of a party place. It was a long low building parallel to the coast centered around a huge dining/living space. The highest level had a banquet table that could accommodate a couple dozen people and serving areas and lots of space to walk around. The rest of the room went downward toward the ocean in a series of steps. The next level was mostly open except for a thirty foot long couch built into the back wall so that it faced out toward the ocean view. The bottom step had a walk-in fireplace in the center of the wall and sliding window doors on each side opening out on to a large deck overlooking the ocean.

The furniture was an eclectic mix of Mexican pieces and dozens of faux medieval pieces picked up in and around the Paris flea markets. Pretty colorful. There were a couple little bedrooms and a bathroom on one end of the building and a tiny kitchen with a pantry on the other end.

The doors were always open and most of the time there were only a couple of us rattling around in this big empty place. One weekend afternoon when we were slowly working our way through a couple bottles of wine we were joined by Andre and his friend who you may have met in one of my previous stories “The Bench”.  Andre had fled the Russian revolution and was rumored to have strong connections in the semi-secret communities of such people that most of us are unaware of. He was marginally well to do and always bubbling over with creative energy looking for an outlet. After we had accumulated a couple more empty wine bottles the conversation drifted around to one of Andre’s favorite subjects. Apparently he had been conducting a “Gourmet Cooking School” in the area on a random schedule and it was about time to have another. There was general agreement that the castle would be an ideal location. The tiny kitchen was felt to be a drawback that could be overcome if all of us would agree to pitch in and help out.

So the news was leaked to responsible individuals in the surrounding affluent communities and planning got underway to hold the event in the castle in a month.

Here I should probably explain that the “Gourmet Cooking School” was actually a grand dinner party during which Andre would introduce each course with a few words on how it had been prepared and explain the motivation behind the choice of wine that was to accompany that course.

During the first week (while I was annihilating positrons and tuning gamma rays) Andre worked out the menu began to plan the kitchen choreography necessary to bring it off. It was agreed that the Planning Group would meet over the weekend and prepare a trial run version of the dinner just to see how things fit together and to be sure that the shopping list was complete. (In a castle in the forest there are no neighbors to go to if you run out of salt.)

The first time through it took us a couple hours to prepare the eight separate courses. There was a lot of getting in each others way in the cramped little kitchen. But finally we were on a roll and course after course flowed out onto the grand dinning table  for consumption. Of course, the fact that we were also eating the dinner slowed things down a little. The food was (mostly) great but suggestions were made (especially with regard to the wine list, which was found wanting) and somewhere around 2:00am the party finally wound down.

Before breaking up we agreed to meet the next weekend to repeat the process and tighten up the menu. Someone agreed to start thinking about the background music and someone else chose to look into an appropriate choice of linens, silver and china. Actually, there was a lot to do since we had found that the supply of pots and pans and serving dishes was inadequate. I remember one conversation where it was maintained that we could cut some corners if we kept the lighting low.

During the week I started working on a Bremsstrahlung target
for gamma ray production that involved multiple heats in a hydrogen atmosphere furnace. Beautiful work. During this same period Andre did some more shopping to prepare for the weekend.

When the weekend arrived we all got together and started right in without so much sitting around and discussing as before. People began to assign themselves to particular aspects of the process and to time their contributions into the intervals between the activities of the others so everything became smoother and more intense at the same time. As the food (and wine) flowed out onto the banquet table you could sense everyone's pride that it was starting to come together. So we all got to enjoy the evolving dinner menu for a second time and there was general agreement that it was improving. Some sauces could clearly benefit from a little attention and the wine list was still evolving. It was getting to be late in the game but the desert clearly was not working. I don’t remember what it was, but it was too elaborate to be sitting on top of the preceding seven courses. Andre wanted to skip it entirely and just go with a cheese course but saner heads prevailed.We decided to have a small sorbet (I knew a supplier who would make something special for us) embellished with two grapes and a grape sized honeydew melon ball in a couple spoonfuls of a champagne liqueur.

The next week at work was uneventful (except for a little Army project involving gamma ray food sterilization where some cans exploded) and I spent most of my time thinking about the coming weekend.

This was going to be our last practice (and associated meal) and there were still some loose ends. The menu was pretty well locked in and the kitchen coordination was awesome. (Better than some covert operations that I have subsequently participated in.) The table was set as it would be for the big event and the background music was playing (and we realized that we needed more candles). We even had a practice run through for the floral decorations. About half way through the meal we dimmed the lights and Andre switched to a white-tie tux to announce  the final course. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes. We were ready.

I had a tough time at work that week. I was almost holding my breath in anticipation of the weekend. But ,as usual, an interesting project came up where I had to design a rotating target exchange wheel that would rotate in sudden small increments. It turns out that something called a geneva mechanism (found in older movie projectors) is perfect for the job.

The big night went by in a blur. I remember sneaking a peek into the dunning room and seeing the happy crowd eating and drinking and chattering away and having a wonderful time. In the kitchen it was all serious business, with people checking their watches and tasting this and that to make last minute adjustments.

Then it was all over. The guests were gone in their limos and the support team turned on the lights, poured what was left of the wine and proceeded to debrief the evening’s events. Unknown to me there had been some (predictable) gaffs. A sauce that curdled. A dish that was not as warm as it should have been when served. Etc. In every case the team had covered beautifully and the guests never had a clue there was a problem. We just let it all sit and started the cleanup process the next day. By midweek there was almost no evidence that anything had happened (other than the fact that the place was unusually clean).

And I went back to the boring business of making positrons which, as you know, are the holes left behind when you yank electrons out of empty space.

The Power of ..............

We could stop the universe.

Or not.

Bring space-time to a shuddering halt.

Or not.

The Bench

His name was Andre.

At the time it seemed like the name of an artist. The image I have is something like a Rembrandt self portrait. A rumpled, stained smock and a big floppy (maybe velvet) hat. Not that Andre actually dressed like that, but his baggy old jacket and beret combined with his artistic attitude to suggest something more profound. I was told that he was “White Russian”, whatever that means. The implication was that he had come from a royal family of some sort, that had had the good sense to leave Russia during the revolution. He was in his 80’s when I knew him in 1960.

He had a male partner whose name I can not recall. He had been the lead architect for San Diego’s widely known Balboa Park and was a pleasant, quiet sort of guy compared to Andre’s broad overstatement and bluster.

They were friends of friends and we became acquainted during a party at an improvised castle perched on the cliffs of Pt Loma overlooking the Pacific Ocean. (Where I was living in a guest house.) In the course of the evening Andre reveled (to me and everyone else) that he had rented a half dozen garages some years ago to store the excess furniture that had resulted when he and his partner had moved into more modest accommodations. During the next few days they planned to sort through the stuff and try to trim it down to one or two fewer garages. He thought it would be delightful good fun to play “musical garages” and invited us all to join the enterprise. Since I had some time on my hands I decided to “give it a shot”.

We only had one old pickup truck so the process got kind of involved. And Andre hated to part with any of his treasures. Eventually we managed to eliminate one garage and I ended up with an old redwood bench.

It was beautiful. It clearly had spent it’s entire life outdoors in the sun and rain. It was about one and a half feet high, a foot or so wide and about three feet long. The color had weathered to a wonderful silver-gray and the softer part of the wood grain had shrunk leaving the harder part of the grain more exposed.

At the end of the summer when I returned to Berkeley to continue my graduate studies at the university I took the bench with me. When I think back on it now, it is sort of a shame, but I ended up sanding away the beautiful weathered grey surface and the raised grain. I then applied a couple of coats of furniture finishing oil and the bench glowed with rich redness that gives the wood it’s name.

The bench was about the only solid piece of furniture my wife Cecilia had during our time at the university. After I graduated we spent some time abroad and the bench had to fend for itself. We eventually returned to Berkeley and after a couple years we bought an old redwood shingled house (do you see a pattern here) near Live Oak Park in the north part of town. The bench was right at home there and it assumed the duties of “coffee table” in front of the small couch in the living room.

Life goes on, and after a few years we adopted three girls, a sibling group - two fraternal twins and a younger sister. After a couple more years I fled the strains of family life and then a few years later the children also decided to leave. Cecilia and I divorced and she inherited the house and the redwood bench.

Not much is known about how things were for the bench until more than thirty years later when,almost by accident, we learned that Cecilia had died and the house was sitting empty and the bench was alone again. My daughter Katie drove down from Portland OR to put things in order and took the bench back home with her. I doubt it suits her decor, but for now, it is home and it will have to do until the next adventure comes along.

Maybe Happiness Is ...........

Maybe happiness is this: not feeling like you should be elsewhere, doing something else, being someone else.

This is what sailing does for me.

I have ample evidence that this does not work for everyone.

Another thought that has been playing around in the back of my mind is the question of whether or not Love (note the capital letter) requires an object. I found myself falling in love the other day without an object to hang it on. I was reflecting on the fact that my recent attempts at “falling in love” had not accomplished much and, in fact, the idea of love “sans objet” seems to have a lot to recommend it.

Many of you were building counter arguments in your mind as you read the above. But let me be a little rough and point out that the images of the world that you carry around in your brain are not worth much. There is a lot of current scientific research (and informed philosophical musing) that supports the view that the brain simply makes up stuff to embellish the decisions that it has already made (often without a hint of causal connection). History, Poetry, Literature and Folklore abound with stories of love so one sided as to make the putative object irrelevant.

My contention is that this is not an occasional aberration, but rather the universal norm. And that love “avec un objet” is kind of a cover up that simply serves as a mnemonic to make communication on the subject more organized. I’d argue that that while there is no problem with espousing the conventional wisdom in this area, there is also no real point in it.

It does clear the air to put a lot of these archaic ideas behind us.

The Houseboat

During the epic process of rebuilding the ancient sailing vessel “Vixen” my mentor and friend Wladek had been living in a tiny waterfront shack on the Oakland estuary. The shack occupied the empty space that would have otherwise been wasted inside the legs of an old water tower that had seen better days. The tank itself was a huge big barrel made of vertical wooden staves held round with a couple steel bands. At that time it was probably no longer in use.

And now I wonder. There was a fancy restaurant built in Kensington at about that time called “Narsai’s”. The decor featured a redwood dining room “fashioned from a giant redwood tank”. Might have been the same one.

It was the summer of 1968 and I was just graduating from UC Berkeley with a PhD in Nuclear Physics and getting ready to go to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for a one year postdoctoral position. Wladek’s restoration work was coming to an end and the boat was back in the water. At about this time he learned that the small boat harbor just west of Jack London Square where he had lived and worked on the boat for the last 6-7 years was about to be razed for the construction of a major container ship unloading facility. He decided that it would be cool to first build a float of some sort and then second to hire a crane to hoist his home from under the water tank onto the float. Somehow I got enlisted into the float building project and the very next weekend we set out on our quest.

There was an old ramshackle, one story, factory building adjacent to the water tower, and I remember that there was a sort of “greasy spoon” cafe somewhere near there on the dock as well.  Inside the factory we cleared a space on the wooden floor and laid out a template for the individual stringers out of which the box was to be made. Something like this:

There was a beam at the top and another at the bottom, then 4-5 short vertical risers and a bunch of rectangular and triangular plywood gussets. Since 8-10 of these beams were required for the float a lot of individual pieces had to be cut and then assembled. I think that we did it in one day (probably a Saturday) and then spent the next day (Sunday, when even the Lord normally takes a break) we set up the framework of the box outside and then covered it with plywood. So, in a few short hours we had managed to build the box, but it still had some shortcomings: first it had a lot of cracks and seams that would leak and second it was big and heavy and upside down so getting it into the water was not going to be easy.

During the week Wladek covered the box with fiberglass mat and then saturated the mat with a two part liquid epoxy that then hardened into a thick permanently waterproof layer. To the best of my knowledge it never leaked. There were water intrusion issues from time to time but they usually had to do with rain water leaking in from above or waves from boats passing in the estuary. These waves would break against the houseboat and push their way in over the open top of the box. When the epoxy had hardened Wladek hired a crane to lift the box and turn it over and then set it into the water. Then he put plywood flooring on to seal up the top of the box and started building the frame of what was eventually to become the houseboat itself. (Somewhere along the way it had become clear that the shack from under the water tower was not really suitable.) So, the decision was made to start from scratch and build something new.

I don’t remember why I wasn’t involved in this part of the project, perhaps I had already left for Denmark.

The houseboat ended up on an end tie in the 5th Avenue Marina. It was a wonderful location on the Oakland side of the channel a little less than a mile east of Jack London Square and across from  the Oakland and Encinal Yacht Clubs on the Alameda side. The view down the estuary toward San Francisco and the setting sun was really special. Speaking of the view, this might be a good time to mention that the three main windows of the house were reused from the old abandoned factory where we had begun the project.

In the course of time something special happened with the houseboat. People who spent time there were affected somehow. Not suddenly and not everyone. The change is subtle at first then more noticeable with time.  It is as if the time spent there doesn’t count. If you spent days there it would still the same time when you left as the time when when you entered. Frequent visitors would notice (or not) that the world that they went back into when leaving was not exactly the world that they had left earlier. Often each instance went unnoticed but a sense of otherness would accumulate.

You know who you are.

I think of it as a “Portal”, an opening from one place in space and time to another place in space and time. Mind you, I’m not talking about the kind of Portal that you might find in a science fiction movie where a shimmering wall appears that looks like the surface of a small pool of water (but vertical) where one leaps through into another universe. No, what I am trying to describe is a lot more subtle. The effects were smaller and incremental.

In science these days there are people who take seriously the idea that the world of our senses moves forward in time by splitting smoothly into multiple universes that differ from each other by the tiniest amount at first but the differences grow with time as the process continuously repeats itself. Maybe Wladek found a way to move sideways in this continuum of universes and he somehow built it into the structure. Let’s say someone is upset with you and as time goes forward this is going to continue to be the case. On the time line where you are there might be parallel universes splitting off all the time where the person is even more angry or maybe less angry so that they forgive you. You have to believe that all of these things actually happen but you only experience the one that you are in.

What if the houseboat would let you slip sideways from one reality to another that is adjacent to it. Actually, I don’t expect that a word I’m saying is going to be understood, but the experience has left a mark on me that has not faded with time. On occasions when I was struggling to find direction in life I ended up living on the houseboat for weeks at a time. Each experience left me somewhat disoriented but more and more with a sense that I was not bound to the world line that otherwise might have seemed inevitable, but that I could “move sideways” and, in some sense, “choose the future”.

Think of it as surfing or hang gliding. Normally the universe unfolds in front you as if you were going straight down the wave and holding on for dear life. What if you slowly learned to stand and then to lean a little to one side or the other so that your trajectory differs infinitesimally at first but with time a gap begins to grow between what is, and what might have been. As a caveat, let me assure you that this has not helped me to avoid illness nor has it enabled me to choose a future where my investments are always growing. That’s not the way it works.

One of the very few regrets I have, and there are not many (Being able to choose your future means that you are responsible for it.) is that the experience I have been trying to describe here is so difficult to share. I have tried, and it is like standing at the north pole under a sky filled with an aurora and wanting to share it with a friend who does not believe in “lights in the sky” and refuses to look up. I have some ideas and I had thought that with time I might make some progress in this area. But it is not to be. The gateway is gone. It only remains for those of us who have been marked by its existence to form a circle, hold hands and murmur some sort of blessing.